April 24, 1863 (Friday)
By this time in the campaign, General Grant had been working along side his corps commanders. While the trusted General Sherman was north of Vicksburg, Grant was personally overseeing the John McClernand and James McPherson’s Corps as they filed into and around New Carthage, Louisiana, along the western banks of the Mississippi.
The overall plan was to cross the river and take the Rebel batteries at Grand Gulf. Once accomplished, there were several options. But first, the Army of the Tennessee must cross.
To aid the attempt, Admiral David Dixon Porter had agreed to support Grant’s infantry. First, however, he wanted to see what he would be up against. And so he and his fleet steamed down the Mississippi to Grand Gulf and discovered not one battery, but three with another being constructed. Additionally, the Rebels were clearly seen improving the works with upwards of 500 slaves. A supply ship was trying to land, but Porter’s gunboats drove her off.
From a preacher, whom Porter described as a “half Union man,” he learned that 12,000 Confederate troops garrisoned the batteries, and that twelve heavy guns had been placed atop the bluffs ready to rain hell upon Porter’s fleet. The preacher may have been a half Union man, but he was also clearly half Rebel. The reports of 12,000 Rebels and a dozen pieces of heavy artillery were false, but it was because of these, that Porter decided to call off any attack.
General McClernand was convinced that it wasn’t nearly as bad as Porter claimed it to be. “I saw no great activity of any kind displayed by the enemy,” he wrote to Grant, “nor did I see any formidable display of batteries or forts.” McClernand believed the Confederate defenses at Grand Gulf to be scant at best, but knew they wouldn’t be so for long. “I cannot too strongly urge that it be done now,” he attested. “The enemy should be at once driven away from the crest and river slope of the bluffs, and I believe the gunboats can easily do it.”
With two wildly different takes on the situation before him, Grant decided to see Grand Gulf for himself. And so he and Admiral Porter took a steamer downriver. Grant, who rarely found himself agreeing with McClernand, found himself agreeing with McClernand. A closer look showed him that the key to the entire position was the northern-most bluff. This was probably the battery that Porter claimed was being constructed, as there were now fortifications upon it and slaves at work improving them, but, as yet, no artillery.
Grant wanted to make the attack in two days. First, Porter’s gunboats would take care of any artillery at Grand Gulf and then McClernand’s troops would be landed to mop up the rest. There was, however, a rather glaring problem.
Though Grant had agreed with McClernand’s conclusions about Grand Gulf, that is where the cohesion ended. Confusion and general disorganization reigned at McClernand’s headquarters and this mess was slowing everything down. At the core its core, the problem seemed to be with McClernand himself. Grant had ordered his officers to leave their horses and tents behind to enable swift movements, McClernand ignored this, even dragging along his wife, and was now reaping the anticipated results.
Even so, Grant ordered McClernand to send an armed reconnaissance south past the ground opposite Grand Gulf. McClernand assented and hoped to soon learn whether he should follow with the rest of his corps.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 24, Part 1, p79-81; Part 3, p225-226, 228, 231; Official Naval Records, Vol. 24, p522; Vicksburg by Michael B. Ballard. [↩]